On August 9, in the latest in a long-running battle between Ford and CBP over 'tariff engineering', Ford won a key victory at the Court of International Trade.

The CIT agreed with Ford that its Transit vehicles, imported with second-row passenger seats removed after importation, qualify for the lower tariff rate on passenger vehicles (2.5%), and are not subject to the higher "chicken tax" (25%) on cargo vehicles. The key facts as stated by the court include:

Ford manufactures the Transit Connect 6/7s in Turkey and imports them into the United States. Although these vehicles are made to order and are ordered as cargo vans, Ford imports them with a second row seat, declaring the vehicles as passenger vehicles . . . . After clearing customs but before leaving the port, Ford (via a subcontractor) removes the second row seat and makes other changes, delivering the vehicle as a cargo van.

CBP took the position that the second row seat "is an improper artifice or disguise masking the true nature of the vehicle at importation," instead of what Ford argued was legitimate tariff engineering. Customs defines 'tariff engineering' as "the longstanding principle that merchandise is classifiable in its condition as imported and that an importer has the right to fashion merchandise to obtain the lowest rate of duty and the most favorable treatment." In adopting Ford's view, the court found that the vehicles, at the time of importation, are "principally designed for the transport of persons."

The court's analysis is a "must read" for anyone with more than a passing interest in customs classification. The case provides a robust articulation of an expansive and legitimate foundation for tariff engineering. Basing its analysis on important historical precedent, the court pins its finding for Ford in an 1891 Supreme Court ruling that classification must be made of the imported item "in the condition in which it is imported," and an even earlier high court decision that ruled a manufacturer may purposely manufacture goods in such a manner as to "evade higher duties." The court further analyzed more recent CIT decisions applying them to Ford's extensive facts.

Given the long running nature of this dispute and the amount of difference in the two tariff rates, many observers expect Customs to appeal and so the last word may not yet be written on the Ford vehicles at issue or factual applications of 'tariff engineering'.

In today's trade debates, the historical background is worth remembering: the 25% duty on trucks (compared to 2.5% duty on cars) was imposed by the United States in the 1960s in retaliation against Europeans for imposing high tariffs on American chickens. It was later used against Japan as Japanese vehicles began to make serious inroads into American commerce. That high duty remains in place 50 years later. Duties invoked in haste in trade wars can become permanent.